But here, at last, is the final awardee. Today we honor Bill Pelke, who is the outgoing chair of the NCADP Board of Directors:
Special Recognition: Outgoing Board Chairman, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
One of the best known and most beloved leaders within abolition circles is Bill Pelke, outgoing chairman of the NCADP Board of Directors. Pelke has served on the NCADP Board of Directors since 1996 and has been board chairman since October 2004, in addition to the countless hours he has served as executive director of The Journey of Hope….From Violence to Healing.
In 2003, Pelke authored a book that mirrors his organization’s name -- Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing. The book details the May 14, 1985 murder of his grandmother Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher, by four teenage girls. Paula Cooper who was deemed to be the ringleader was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. She was fifteen-years-old at the time of the murder.
Pelke originally support the sentence of death for Cooper, but went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. He became involved in an international crusade on Paula's behalf and in 1989 after over 2 million people from Italy signed petitions and Pope John Paul II’s request for mercy, Paula was taken off of death row and her sentence commuted to sixty years.
“The answer is love and compassion for all humanity,” Pelke says. “The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with healing. It just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victims’ family members. We become what we hate. We become killers.”
Looking back on his tenure with NCADP, Pelke sees both an organization and a movement that has matured and grown more sophisticated. “The NCADP had a lot of goals and dreams when I joined the board,” he recalls. “We have seen the NCADP grow to the point where many of those dreams have become realities. The funding is much better, the work with affiliates has greatly improved, the staff has grown and continues to grow and the NCADP has taken the leadership role in the abolition movement. The movement itself has changed with the new voices of victims’ families, death row families, exonerated death row inmates and prosecutors, wardens, police chiefs and other activists being heard.”
Pelke, a retired steelworker, has dedicated his life to working for abolition of the death penalty. He shares his story of forgiveness and healing, and how he came to realize that he did not need to see someone else die in order to heal from his grandmother’s death. He also helps organize Journey tours nationally and abroad. Pelke has traveled to over forty states and ten countries with the Journey of Hope and has told his story over 5000 times.
Although Pelke relinquishes the NCADP board chairmanship this month, he by no means is walking away from abolition work. In addition to directing The Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, he also sits on the board of the Justice and Reconciliation Project and he hopes to be more involved with the restorative justice process in the future. “I plan to continue to walk through any open door in keeping with my commitment to God on Nov. 2, 1986 – the night my heart was touched with forgiveness for Paula Cooper,” Pelke says.